Men. Feeling shitty? Turns out it’s not just you.

A while ago, over a call, one of my friends was feeling shitty, he called me to tell me about his nightly routine. The conversation started light-heartedly, but midway through I noticed something odd about his habits and, in all seriousness, told him that what he was doing suspiciously mirrored patterns of behavior in people with OCD. He brushed me off, but I took a few minutes to look up common symptoms of OCD, asked him a few more questions, and became increasingly concerned about the well-being of my friend. 

I’m no psychiatrist, but as I continued to ask him about other parts of his life I realized that this guy was in serious need of a therapist. I sat there for a long time trying to convince him that the things he was experiencing were serious and that he should go talk to someone professional, but he sat there and batted away everything I had to say quickly and unforgivingly. After a long conversation with absolutely no progress, I found myself frustrated, and not just at my friend. I couldn’t stop asking myself: why do men have such a hard time talking about their feelings? 

This is a sentiment I’ve thought many times but often felt bad for; It felt overgeneralized, unfair, and a tad offensive. However, after doing some more research, I’ve realized that this is not just the nonsensical ramblings of extremist feminists or even that much of an overgeneralization. 

As it turns out, there’s actually a good amount of research and agreement amongst the academic community to suggest that many men’s emotional intelligence, emotional literacy, or simply their ability to sort through and manage their emotions is dangerously low and responsible for a lot of problems for themselves and society.

Is this a problem that all men have? Of course not. Does the lack of emotional literacy in women also create problems? Of course it does. However, it’s the male aspect of this issue that does not get enough discussion and should be talked about bluntly.

Depression, suicide, and alcohol: the facts 

Before I lose you or make you angry, I’ll bring in a couple facts. According to the National Institute of Mental Health in America, the rate of suicide amongst men is notably higher than that of women. However, the prevalence of diagnosed mental illness amongst men is, strangely, much lower than women. These two statistics considered together could mean two things: there are far more men than we know who are feeling shitty, or have mental illnesses and do not come forward to get diagnosis and treatment and/or there is a very high number of men who don’t have a mental illness but are so emotionally unequipped to deal with their emotions that it becomes enough to destroy them. Either way, there is an issue. 

Depression, suicide, and alcohol: the facts

What’s more, is that according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the CDC, men are two to three times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than women, men die as a result of alcohol-related accidents almost twice as much as women, and depression and suicide are ranked amongst the top causes of death for men in many first-world countries. The link between alcoholism and depression is widely accepted. 

How do men’s problems cause society’s problems? 

Obviously, the tendency to avoid emotional problems and let depression manifest is enough to ruin someone’s life and has proven time and time again to lead to the end of one, and this is an issue that individuals and societies both have to deal with. However that tendency is bound to affect people other than the one suffering from it. 

Studies from the University of Rochester and many others have found that men, more so than women, will express aggressive behavior as a symptom of their depression, taking form in anything from verbal abuse to physical force. It is also widely accepted that depression and mental illness is strongly linked to violent crime. The National Health Society in the UK estimates that someone suffering from depression is three times more likely to commit violent crime than someone who is not depressed. With this in mind, it’s worth noting that in almost every country/society to date, men make up the large majority of criminals. 

In short, many men are suffering from poor mental health and are not able to manage their emotions properly or do not get the help to do so and, as a result, are killing themselves at significantly high rates, often severely harming those around them, and if not one of those two, are finding themselves living unhappily. 

Everything considered, it seems like we can attribute some of society’s biggest problems like alcoholism, general crime, domestic violence, and rape — all things that will take a serious toll on someone else — to unresolved emotional issues. At least to an extent. 

To make matters worse, when depression does take form in aggression and crime, the justice system usually does more harm than good. The prison environment in many countries focuses on punishment rather than rehabilitation, leaving many men who find themselves in prison as a result of their depression/mental illness induced bouts of aggression and crime depressingly likely to find their mental health deteriorating at rates quicker than ever and end up back in a cell or under six feet of dirt.  

Obviously, not all men who are depressed will commit a crime. To make the general claim that a depressed or mentally ill man will inevitably end up as a violent, harmful criminal would simply be inaccurate. However, it’s hard to deny the significance of the association between the two. 

Personal thoughts: insecurity 

At this point, it’s understood that depression is a big part of the problem. However, depression is a broad term that can be caused by a number of factors. The tendency for men to succumb to heavy substance abuse is indicative of a need to distract themselves from problems rather than solve them, which easily leads to depression. However, it is my personal belief that male insecurity is a plague for men’s mental health everywhere that often goes unnoticed and undiscussed. 

Insecurity, body image issues, and appearance insecurity are typically associated with women, and for good reason. Women suffer from eating disorders at a rate much higher than men and there is no doubt that there is and has been a strong societal pressure for women to look a certain way; matters are made worse by how often a woman’s worth is decided according to how she looks. These are still serious, relevant issues, but luckily, there has been good progress in appreciating the beauty, talent, and worth in all kinds of women. For the most part, men have not received the same attention. 

Many companies have shifted their branding and advertisements to include plus size women and different beauty standards, but the story is not the same for men who are plus size or who are not traditionally handsome. How many ads have you seen with a man who isn’t square-jawed, tall, and fit? 

Hollywood is also guilty of objectifying men almost as much as women. Although actors who do not fit the part of the handsome protagonist can often bank on playing the funny guy or eccentric nerd, the actors who do take those hot lead roles often face difficulties. Actors who film shirtless or intimate scenes are often asked to dehydrate themselves before shoots in order to get the most ripped look possible. This is unarguably unhealthy and sets unrealistic expectations even for men who are fit. 

Where there are issues within industries, there are also issues within male groups. Women have done a great job of creating a culture of support amongst themselves. For women, it is a very easy and normal thing to tell a friend that they look good or to put a few nice comments under an instagram post. It is even commonplace for compliments to be thrown around in conversations with complete strangers. For most women, the same network of support extends to emotional problems, whether it be insecurity, depression, relationships, or anything in between. To my understanding, this culture is almost nonexistent within groups of men. 

I’ve had guy friends tell me that they hold on to compliments they got years in the past because getting one is so rare, and I’ve seen posts on instagram, Tik Tok, and Twitter expressing the same thoughts that gathered millions of likes, reshares, and comments agreeing. Think about how normalized telling your wife or girlfriend she’s beautiful every day is, or how common hyperbolic compliments like “You’re the most beautiful girl in the world” are. Clearly, there is a disparity. 

Insecurity about appearance or self-worth is a problem on it’s own, but what happens with some men is an ugly overcompensation for such insecurities with fragile ego-fueled arrogance, lashing out, and flaunting. It sounds a bit contradictory, but give it a thought.

In the words of psychologist Michael J. Formica, “The bully is the weakest one on the playground.” 

“The bully is the weakest one on the playground”

Feeling shitty. Why are things like this? 

Whether they admit it or not, most men who are feeling shitty also feel a pressure to present themselves as tough, ‘macho,’ and manly, which, for whatever reason, also means not feeling or succumbing to strong emotions. In the words of an article from the American Psychological Association:

 “The socialization of masculine ideals starts at a young age and defines ideal masculinity as related to toughness, stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity (Wall & Kristjanson, 2005), and of connectedness.” 

This is what you would call a gender role, and it has been perpetuated by media, society, and men and women alike for decades. These traits are not inherently dangerous, but when they are prioritized over mental health, well-being, and emotional stability (as they have been), they most certainly are. 

As the previously mentioned article from APA explains, “The possibility of negative effects of harmful masculinity occurs when negative masculine ideals are upheld.”

I could take the time to explain how these mediums convey this message, but frankly, you are probably already aware of it. TV shows, movies, magazine, music, books, and now platforms like Instagram often have these ‘macho men’ at the center of attention. These ideals are so withstanding that they’ve also been passed down through generations of parenting, coaching, teaching, and more. 

A recent trend in media that has also helped perpetuate this negative male gender role is making a joke out of male depression. Those my age will know what I’m talking about (think Will Smith), but for those who are not familiar, it is very common to see images of real men experiencing real pain used as a punchline for a joke. In most cases the depression itself is the punchline. 

One could argue that there isn’t much harm in something many people find funny or that those jokes could pass as dark humor. However, from my interaction with these jokes I can confidently say they do not fall into the realm of dark humor. They are very popular and common-place. Of course making jokes online in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but they undoubtedly play into the normalization of the idea that male depression is something to laugh about rather than be taken seriously. 

This idea of masculinity is heavily ingrained into society, but the sad reality is that it hasn’t done much good for anyone. 

What can we do about it? 

Although calling this a men’s issue might imply this is a male problem that men need to fix on their own, that is definitely not the case. As much as individual men need to look within themselves, realize the faulty ideas they’ve been conditioned to follow, come to terms with their emotions, and get help, women and the rest of society/media need to create an environment where that is okay. 

That said, I do feel that there has been progress. I am definitely not the first to spread this message and my interactions with mainstream media has shown me that modern platforms like Tik Tok, Twitter, and Youtube are slowly making men and mental health a much more normalized idea. Even large franchises like Avengers have done their part in having many of their strong male leads showcasing healthy emotion. The Joker movie is all about a man suffering from his mental illness and it was one of the highest grossing movies of 2019. 

If truth be told, the recognition of poor male mental health is probably more normalized now then ever. On any given day you might see a high-profile celebrity coming forward to speak about their struggles with mental health, popular movies depicting the struggles men face, or a number of songs about the same topics. I could list 100 male-sung songs off the top of my head that are about their pain and struggles. A man’s willingness to be vulnerable has also become a key component for what the modern woman asks for in her partner, but even with all that, men are still struggling.

There is definitely much room for progress for everyone in taking male issues seriously; feeling shitty is not the norm, but It seems to me that men themselves are the last ones to really consider the idea that being strong means dealing with your emotions rather than not feeling any. 

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